Greenwood fire official: Ambulance outage was contractor staff shortage

Concerns are being raised about ambulance service in Greenwood following a Facebook post showing all of the city’s ambulances out of service.

The public post was shared by a firefighter around 8:13 a.m. Sunday shows that all three of the city’s ambulances were out of service due to a staffing issue. Calling it unacceptable, the person said Seals, the company the city contracts with to provide both emergency and non-emergency ambulance transportation services, was no longer providing adequate coverage for the city. They blamed Mayor Mark Myers for the issue.

The ambulances were out of service for less than an hour on Sunday, said Brad Coy, assistant fire chief. While the ambulances were unavailable, other area fire departments helped provide coverage through mutual aid agreements.

“It wasn’t the whole day,” Coy said. “They were all out of service for a short period of time.”

Staffing issue with Seals

The ambulances were temporarily out of service due to a staffing issue with Seals. The company is contracted by several municipalities across Indiana to provide ambulance services, including Franklin and Greenwood.

Each Friday, Greenwood Fire’s emergency medical services division chief confirms with Seals whether the company will have enough weekend staffing. Last Friday the company said they would have enough, Coy said.

By Sunday morning, the situation was different.

“Unfortunately, Sunday morning, Seals had multiple call-offs at the last minute, which put us in a little bit of a bind in regard to our own contracted ambulance service,” Coy said.

There have been individual call-offs for Seals employees before, but nothing quite to the scale of causing ambulances to be put out of service, he said.

“I think this is the first time that I can remember where they’ve had so many call-offs that it has put us in this type of situation,” he said.

James White, the general manager for Seals Ambulance, said in a statement that the ambulances were unavailable due to unexpected staff illnesses.

“The Seals Ambulance team re-allocated resources appropriately to quickly staff the ambulances and be once again ready for service,” White said.

The fire department does not have the authority to call in staffing on behalf of Seals, as it is Seals’ responsibility to get staffing for the ambulances, Coy said.

“We don’t have, the Greenwood fire department or our shift supervisors, do not have that ability to call in staffing for them,” he said.

Residents still covered

Ambulances from other nearby departments still provided coverage through pre-established mutual aid agreements during the outage.

Greenwood Fire has signed agreements with nearby departments — including Indianapolis, Bargersville and White River Township Fire — to assist with coverage when needed. Mutual aid partners assist with coverage whenever the department has a high number of calls and all three ambulances are on calls at the same time, he said.

Additionally, Greenwood Fire engines also respond to almost every medical call, so there was never a time residents were without service, Coy said.

“A tremendous amount of our calls, a fire engine responds with our ambulance to provide medical care,” he said. “So our apparatus show up, they provide medical care, and then Seals ambulance provides continuing medical care as they’re transported to the hospital.”

White said the system of emergency medical services supporting the city was prepared to handle any eventualities through triage and mutual aid by other first responders. This system worked as expected on Sunday.

“This was a procedural occurrence and the system of emergency medical resources functioned as designed to ensure no interruption of service to residents,” he said.

Though Seals did not have enough staffing for a time on Sunday, Greenwood Fire did, Coy said. The city has four firefighters on every piece of apparatus, a total of 21 persons a day, and the staffing issue on Sunday was only with Seals, he said.

While Coy cannot speak specifically for Seals, he said there is a nationwide shortage of both EMTs and paramedics. Seals currently has one position open for Greenwood, a 911 paramedic transport unit, according to online job postings.

Fire department officials are working with Seals to find a remedy so a situation like this doesn’t happen again, he said.

“I think this is a rarity — from a standpoint of all of them being down at the same time,” Coy said.

Why Seals?

Seals has been Greenwood’s exclusive ambulance transportation services provider since around 2016. The company leases and operates three ambulances provided by the city. The biggest reason why the city uses Seals is cost.

If Greenwood Fire were to start up its own ambulance service, the predicted start-up cost would be between $3 to $4 million — funds that are not currently budgeted. The decision on doing something like this would be at an executive level, as it involves operations and budgets, Coy said.

However, with Seals, the costs are non-existent. The city pays nothing for Seals to provide ambulance services, and Seals makes funds through billing patient transportation, Coy said.

“We do not pay anything to SEALS for them to provide transportation service to us,” he said. “It is a lot less cost, therefore, it’s a lot less tax dollars that go toward that.”

Department not understaffed

Coy says that despite rumors suggesting otherwise, the department is not understaffed. The rumors result from varying statistics about what people consider ideal staffing.

“We are not understaffed,” Coy said.

For example, documentation from the Insurance Services Office, or ISO, says the average staffing for a U.S. fire department is around 167 firefighters for every 100,000 residents. This is an average, and not a mandate, Coy said.

“You can use that statistic, but that’s the average,” he said. “That’s not what NFPA (the National Fire Protection Association) says, that’s not what you have to have. That is the average.”

The ISO number is from the NFPA, which also says it’s an average number for full-time firefighters. Cities with the highest average tend to be medium-sized cities like Birmingham, Alabama — with 308 full-time firefighters per 100,000 people — and Memphis, Tennessee — 282 per 10,000 people, according to 2014 research by the Smart Cities Council.

If the city were to hire 30 more firefighters right now to meet the average, officials would not have a place to put them, Coy said.

“I don’t have an apparatus to put them on, and I don’t have fire station beds to put them in,” he said.

The opening of the planned fire station on the city’s southeast side will bring additional firefighters and apparatus, but this is still a few years away, Coy said.